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Netanyahu suggests early elections despite 'terrific coalition': report

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, pictured with then-deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Aug. 28, 2011.
AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested to leading figures in the government that early elections might take place although the current coalition is “terrific”, a report from Jerusalem Post said on Monday.

“I want to continue with this coalition until almost the end of the term. This is a terrific coalition,” Netanyahu reportedly said during a heated debate in the parliament over the issue of ultra-Orthodox Jews’ army enlistment.

Israel’s High Court of Justice gave lawmaker till September to pass a new law that would replace the current arrangement that largely exempts ultra-Orthodox from military duty.

The exemption of ultra-Orthodox students from Israel’s mandatory military service is a contentious issue, and attempts to legislate the matter have bitterly divided Netanyahu’s fragile coalition government -- which hinges on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties.

On July 1, a new conscription law passed its first of three readings following sharp rhetoric and fiery debate in the lead-up to the vote.

The contentious legislation, put forth on the recommendations of a Ministry of Defense committee report published earlier this month, proposes minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox enlistment that, if not met, would result in financial penalties on rabbinical seminaries, called ‘yeshivas’, which fall below the threshold.

Rabbis of Agudat Yisrael, which is the Hasidic part of coalition party United Torah Judaism, oppose the financial penalties and have vowed to quit the coalition should the law pass.

Netanyahu is thus seeking to extend the September deadline with 9-10 months, and if granted by the court, coinciding with early elections which the prime minister, according to a Jerusalem Post source, would initiate when the parliament returns from Summer recess in October.

This means that elections could be held as early as January 2019.

Netanyahu’s fragile coalition was sent into a tailspin in March when head of the UTJ party Yaakov Litzman threatened not to support the government’s 2019 state budget if the exemptions bill was not approved, putting them at loggerheads with Defense Minister and head of the secular Yisrael Beytenu party Avigdor Liberman, who vowed to vote down the legislation.

AHMAD GHARABLI (AFP/File)

The crisis was averted when coalition partners reached a compromise to postpone the issue, which is now threatening the future of the coalition again.

Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, granted the initial exemption while Israel was fighting for its existence. The ultra-Orthodox, or "Haredim", said they would be an army for God.

Over time, the number of yeshiva students exploded, and with that, political considerations led to expanded exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox. This caused an ever-widening rift in Israeli society – a society in which secular and religious Zionist Jews serve in the military, while the ultra-Orthodox study scripture.

In 2014, the Knesset passed the Equal Service Law, marking the first time in the history of Israel that ultra-Orthodox Jews were mandated to join the military. The law stipulated criminal penalties for ultra-Orthodox Israelis who fail to enlist.

The decision was met with mass protest from the Haredi community, and eventually the law was amended to no longer stipulate criminal prosecution of draft-dodgers.

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